It’s my husband who helps me get dressed for my first online sex party. At almost midnight on a Friday, the pile of rejected outfits on my living room floor is growing. The house rules are clear: outfits will be vetted. Sensing my mounting panic, my husband magics five meters of red shibari rope from his closet into a pentagram harness that frames my breasts. Having nothing to wear to the ball isn’t a problem when wearing nothing to the ball is perfectly acceptable.
In our open marriage, we’re used to sending each other off on adventures; we snap a selfie before he takes his man flu to bed. “You look smoking. I should be all over this,” he says, kissing me good night. “Have fun. Tell me about it in the morning.”
I’m both nervous and excited in the Zoom waiting room. I’ve always wanted to attend a sex party, but never imagined my first would be a virtual one.
My friends at Hot Takes, an Amsterdam-based community that hosts events on contemporary sexuality and relationships, told me about Crossbreed – a London-based party that promises to “welcome queerness, individuality, kink, sex positivity, love and kindness”. Like every other close-contact business shuttered by the pandemic, Crossbreed has gone virtual. My insatiable curiosity for new experiences and need for random social interaction compelled me to buy a ticket.
The Zoom waiting screen clears. Dance music pours out of my speakers. I’m in.
“This is the most varied display of humanity I’ve seen in months”
My laptop screen fills with tiny windows revealing people in all shapes, sizes, configurations, and manner of dress and undress. Scrolling through the gallery, I count 72 screens in total. The full screen view changes as the hosts flick through the screens, spotlighting each attendee for a few beats: a masked couple in a hot tub, someone in a gimp suit eating a sandwich, a latex-clad individual chained to a toilet, a rabbit-eared foursome dancing in front of a couch surrounded by houseplants.
This is the most varied display of humanity I’ve seen in months. Hungry for variety and novelty after the unending sameness of my days, I drink it all in, both delighted and instantly turned on. Switching off your camera is forbidden and will get you kicked out.
I’m relieved that my enthusiasm and skill for chatting up total strangers hasn’t been decimated by months of social isolation. After striking up a brief, pleasant chat with a beautiful curvy woman with a sleek bob, we agree to enter a private chat. I send a request to Crossbreed’s tech support and after securing our mutual consent, he puts us in a Zoom breakaway room, the virtual equivalent of a club darkroom, for 20 minutes.
“I’m surprised by how naturally it all comes to me: watching and being watched”
Out come the toys; we watch each other play. We have just enough time to blow goodbye kisses before the darkroom kicks us out, both sweaty and panting. Soon I’m back with a string of consenting adults—another woman, then two couples. “People can’t get enough of you tonight,” quips tech support after the third darkroom request.
I’m surprised by how naturally it all comes to me: watching and being watched, putting on a show and asking for what I want, offering and being satisfied by visual and mental pleasures. How easy, enjoyable, powerful and hot it all feels.
And how safe. In this pandemic world, with its radically redrawn lines of safety and risk, giving a stranger temporary virtual access to my bedroom — on the conditions of mutual consent and reciprocity, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours — seems less dangerous than hugging a friend. What’s happening in here feels safer than what’s happening out there.
“To be social and sexual, complex and human — is what it means to be human and fully alive, even in the face of death”
A virtual risk of privacy means little to me when I handed my data over to Facebook and Instagram years ago. The internet is forever, but it has a short memory; a grainy screengrab of my tits tonight will be rendered obsolete by the sheer volume of content the world will churn out tomorrow.
I came to this party to satisfy my curiosity but found so much more. I found freedom from pandemic exhaustion and anxiety by stepping out of my identity as a mother and wife into another self, even just for a few hours. I found a life-affirming energy in fantasy, communion and creativity, all from behind the relative safety of a laptop screen.
The range of human needs is too vast to be filled only by socially approved pandemic trends such as binge-watching Tiger King and baking banana bread. All the sides of us need spaces where we can feel safe, play, fantasise, dance, discover, and surprise ourselves. Until it’s safe to do so again in real life, we seek and cling to virtual arenas where all sides of us can grow and flourish. To do so — to be social and sexual, complex and human — is what it means to be human and fully alive, even in the face of death.